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by Lt. Rob Szeligowski & Capt. (sel.) Anthony Carullo

In the July 2011 publication Undersea Warfighting, Commander, Submarine Forces summarizes the inspiring history of the U.S. Submarine Force–from the innovative designers and builders of the USS Holland, to the bold, tenacious heroes of World War II and the Cold War–and the necessary attributes of the Undersea Warrior that made this history possible. Undersea Warfighting describes the characteristics required by the Undersea Warrior to be successful in the hostile and unforgiving environment we operate in. These characteristics, proven in the crucible of WWII and the tense patrols of the Cold War, are still applicable today. The submarine crews of our time still have that spirit–manifested by the crews who provided direct-fire support over the past 20 years in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and most recently, Odyssey Dawn. The actions of the brave and daring men who served before us provide a foundation of lessons on which we build today; their success grounds every Submariner with a sense of purpose and camaraderie even during times of peace.

At times, and rightfully so, our young leaders look back at our submarine heroes to find a sense of purpose for their own service. Long days and months of facing the challenges of being a junior officer (e.g. qualifying, standing watch, learning to be a watch leader, becoming part of the team, etc.) have led some to question their readiness to fight in a wartime environment. They compare today’s Submarine Force culture to a risk-averse pre-WWII Submarine Force, and extrapolate the follow-on ineffectiveness of the Force during the early days of the war to suggest dire consequences for our present Force in the face of wartime challenges. Their critique typically continues that pre-war submarine commanding officers were too risk-averse and procedurally strict to be effective, and the battle in the Pacific was only won by replacing the timid and weak with the bold and dare-devil heroes every submarine Sailor admires–men like Morton, Fluckey, and O’Kane. These commanding officers very much deserve their heroic status, but historical contingences muddy the comparison between the WWII Submarine Force and the Submarine Force of today. The theory that today’s Submarine Force has lost the warfighting edge by regressing back to a peacetime standard of apprehension requires deeper review.

Every few years, an article or paper is written arguing that our senior leaders have bred out boldness and creativity by taking a strict approach to procedural compliance–in other words, that the officers commanding today’s nuclear submarines lack boldness. The argument suggests that this lack of boldness is caused by our culture of procedural compliance and that following the Submarine Force’s procedures, doctrine, and tactics in some way makes our senior leaders timid, even cowardly. However, procedural compliance and a propensity for bold action are not mutually exclusive, and an examination of why our young leaders draw this conclusion is worthwhile.

The Historical Contingences of Boldness:
Untested Weapons and Tactics, Technological Disadvantage

In 1942 and 1943, many commanding officers were removed for being ineffective in taking the fight to the Japanese. These officers were replaced by others who quickly became more effective. All too often, when this history is cited, the latter’s boldness alone is exaggerated and their success is attributed to being less timid. The Submarine Force of the pre-war period–still a relatively young and inexperienced Force–was technically and tactically unprepared for war. Overestimating the effectiveness of antisubmarine air and surface forces, their doctrine was conservative, and there was little appetite for risk in peacetime training; night exercises were prohibited. Prior to the beginning of the war, the Navy was officially opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, which carried unpleasant associations with the German U-boat campaigns of both World Wars. As a result, there was no existing doctrine or tactical guidance for antishipping attacks. Additionally, the Force would soon learn that its primary torpedo–which was not thoroughly tested and exercised–was plagued with problems. Submarine crews were quite simply not ready to face the enemy at war.

The commanding officers and crews who achieved success later in the war, and are often contrasted with the “cautious” and ineffective men of the early war, were operating under different circumstances. They had months or years of experience at war and had witnessed the surprising ineffectiveness of both Japanese antisubmarine forces and pre-war American doctrine, and were better able to appropriately weigh the risks of greater aggression. Over time, they were equipped with better weapons and better tactics, techniques, and procedures for using them. The narrative that early-war skippers were old, passive, and cautious, while the heroes that arose later in the war were young and aggressive ignores that the Submarine Force as a whole learned how to fight in the first year of the war.

The limitations faced by our Force early in WWII have little equivalent in today’s Submarine Force. Our doctrine is grounded in real world lessons learned and is routinely exercised. Our weapons are effective and exhaustively tested. We suffer no cognitive dissonance resulting from a divergence between our likely wartime role and the laws of war, and have no lack of doctrine discussing our wartime employment. Perhaps most importantly, our submarines operate every day in forward areas, “preparing the battlespace” and practicing the skills and tactics critical to wartime effectiveness. The Submarine Force of 2013 is not the Submarine Force of 1941.

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